Jack and Betty Thomas enjoyed keeping a couple of beehives in their back yard as a hobby, but they recognized a need for quality beekeeping supplies. As a result, in 1983 they began selling supplies out of their garage right on Mann Lake in Minnesota, writing invoices from their living room and traveling from coast to coast, attending tradeshows and meetings with every beekeeper they could.
“They had a vision in mind, and they were running with it,” says Erica Organista, Mann Lake’s Sales Representative and Dealership Coordinator.
The Thomas’ business grew quickly, and they outgrew their garage. They set up a new office and manufacturing facility in Hackensack, Minnesota and, years later, a full-service warehouse in Woodland, California. Now Mann Lake supplies customers and dealers with over 3,500 products to keep bees, employing over 200 workers. In planning for the future of the company, Jack and Betty decided to transfer the ownership of the business to their employees under ESOP, or the Employee Stock Ownership Plan. This way, the company’s employees carry on Jack and Betty’s dedication to beekeepers’ success.
“Betty and Jack are still the President and Vice President of the company, but the employees have become owners as well,” Organista explains. “Everyone takes extra time and care, knowing the results of their hard work will come back and benefit everyone. We understand that everybody has different talents and capabilities, and we try to utilize these as much as possible, which often opens a lot of opportunities. It’s important that one enjoys what they do, and then everything else falls into place.”
Interest in beekeeping has grown tremendously in recent years, particularly after bees began disappearing in large numbers due to colony collapse disorder. According to Organista, one out of every three bites of food we eat took a honeybee to pollinate. ”As far as the food chain is concerned, bees play a vital role,” she says.
In addition to starting beekeeping as a hobby, people also keep bees to save the populations. But in the past year or two Organista has identified other motivations as well.
“It’s not only about saving bees — people are starting to realize the importance of where their food comes from,” she says. “People are taking matters into their own hands, turning to gardening and keeping bees for pollination and to reap the sweet rewards of the honey. A lot of them are also raising their own chickens and starting their own hobby farms.”
That’s one reason the Mann Lake team is excited about their new partnership with Williams-Sonoma, selling their hives and starter kits to a new audience. “Williams-Sonoma is heading in the right direction, helping the industry and raising awareness in the beekeeping realm,” says Organista.
New beekeepers are often surprised to learn some additional rewards of the hobby, such as a higher plant yields in gardens. As for the honey, it can be used in everything from your afternoon tea and bread to candles and natural beauty products.
“I admit, I’ve made a face mask with honey before,” Organista laughs.
The Mann Lake sales staff keeps their own hives outside their office building, which they use to test new products for the bees.
Members of the sales and support staff in the Minnesota and California offices all wear numerous hats and contribute to the company’s number one priority: customer service. “Ideally, the phone should never ring more than two times and is always answered 24 hours a day by a live person,” says Organista.
And right now, they are ringing off the hook. A sense of community and pride in work has made Mann Lake a leader in the industry, as they strive to innovate and bring new products forward. The team manufactures many products right in their Minnesota branch — beehives, frames, feeds and more.
“This year when I attended one of the national conventions, what I heard time and time again — from commercial to hobby beekeepers — is that they look to Mann Lake for new innovation and information to keep them moving forward,” says Organista.
The beekeeping community is a tight-knit group, and Organista recommends new beekeepers become involved with local clubs and state associations, or sign up for classes to get started. Reaching out to manufacturing companies can also help ensure you have the product you need and the proper information to move forward and become a successful beekeeper.
“Beekeepers as a whole are rich and genuine people, and many of them have been doing this for 50 or 60 years,” she says. “They want to help and share their knowledge, and so do we. We’re not just here for product, but to help the beekeepers succeed.”